Does America Need Moral Presidents?

Jordan Michael Smith
·20 min read

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Joseph Nye, Jr., Do Morals Matter? Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump (Oxford, UK: University Press, 2019), 254 pp., $24.95.

PANICS ABOUT national decline cycle through American history, symbiotic with periods of national overconfidence. The late 1980s and early 1990s were characterized by overblown fears about the resurgence of Japan and Germany. Running for president in 1992, former Massachusetts senator Paul Tsongas quipped that, “The Cold War is over; Japan won.” In popular novels like Rising Sun (1992) by Michael Crichton and Debt of Honor (1994) by Tom Clancy, Japan is portrayed as embodying a ruthless way of conducting business that injures America. Ross Perot’s running mate in 1996, Pat Choate, wrote a book in 1990: How Japan’s Lobbyists in the United States Manipulate America’s Political and Economic System. It caused a stir in Washington. Clyde Prestowitz had one subtitled, How America Is Surrendering Its Future to Japan and How to Win It Back. There was even a popular volume by George Friedman called, The Coming War with Japan.

This anxiety about Japan was given its most credible and scholarly support in Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. He argued that the United States was succumbing to “imperial overstretch,” a helpful term he introduced into the discourse. The United States’ finances were deteriorating because of its excessive military commitments, he wrote. Japan, conversely, would be perhaps the supreme world power in the twenty-first century. “Just how powerful, economically, will Japan be in the early twenty-first century?” Kennedy asked. “Barring large-scale war, or ecological war, or a return to a 1930s-style world slump and protectionism, the consensus answer seems to be: much more powerful.”

The argument resonated with the reading public to a remarkable degree. Rise and Fall had an initial print run of nine thousand, but soon after it was published, almost a quarter-million copies were in print. It was a stunning success for a nearly seven-hundred-page book that examined five hundred years of global military history. The New York Times understatedly called it an “unexpected bestseller,” as Rise and Fall reached number six on the Times’ bestselling hardcover list, behind works by George Burns, Lee Iacocca and, of course, Donald J. Trump.

But the consensus answer Kennedy relied upon was wrong, as Japan’s economic bubble burst in 1991, leading to an economic decline that lasted the entire decade. These days Japan doesn’t merit entry into discussions about the great powers, lagging behind such competitors as China, Russia, and India. The land of the rising sun didn’t rise. Norwegian historian Geir Lundestad observed in the journal Cold War History in 2000 that Kennedy’s thesis about imperial overstretch was valid—it just applied not to America but to the Soviet Union, which Kennedy had called in his book “a country of almost supernatural strength.” The supposedly supernatural country ceased to exist within four years of Kennedy’s calculation.

Kennedy wasn’t alone in forecasting American decline in the late 1980s and early 1990s, of course. “Decline has been on everyone’s mind, and the arguments of the declinists have stimulated lively public debate,” Samuel Huntington observed in a late 1988 issue of Foreign Affairs.

Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye was one of the rare observers who correctly understood the varied lasting sources of American power. In his 1989 book, Bound to Lead, he wrote that, “American leadership is likely to continue well into the next century.” He surveyed the country’s many strengths—economic, military, territorial, technological, cultural—and envisaged the United States to be the world’s sole great power for decades to come.

In his 2005 book Soft Power (he coined that useful phrase to describe non-traditional sources of power), Nye was similarly bullish about the prospects for the United States, even as he rued the George W. Bush administration’s destructive impact on the country’s international standing. As late as 2015, in Is the American Century Over?, Nye was optimistic about the possibilities for American power. He served in various capacities in the administrations of Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, remaining positive about America’s future throughout.

Nye was never a triumphalist who believed American power was infinite. 2002 marked the height of the country’s post-Cold War hubris, both in terms of policy and the public debate. That year, President George W. Bush grouped Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as an “axis of evil,” and then-Under Secretary of State John Bolton warned that the United States wanted to go “beyond the axis of evil” to target Cuba, Libya, and Syria. Paul Kennedy, by this time converted to fantasies of American predominance, wrote that, “America’s spectacular position in the world in military, economic, technological and cultural terms may be equaled by a wisdom in the executive and the Congress, and a judiciousness in the people for the decades to come.”

Nye didn’t participate in this disastrous tornado of arrogance. In 2002’s The Paradox of American Power, he wrote that “American power is not eternal,” and that on some key issues, “military power cannot produce success and its use can sometimes be counterproductive.” He forecast the rise of Asian markets that would eventually outweigh the American economy. And yet the book was written with the understanding that, “by traditional measures of hard power, compared to other nations, America will remain number one.” Similarly, even as Is the American Century Over? argued for the country’s bright future, Nye was careful to suggest that American hegemony was limited, calling it “half-hegemony.” But half-hegemony is more than none.

ALL THIS makes it disconcerting to read Nye’s new book. A different, more pessimistic Nye is here—one that doesn’t acknowledge any kind of American hegemony at all. An International Affairs article he wrote in 2019 that contains some of the material included in this book was revealingly called, “The Rise and Fall of American Hegemony from Wilson to Trump.” It noted that,

unipolarity proved deceptive in terms of controlling events in world politics. It contributed to a hubris that led not only to the overextension of American ambitions in the invasion of Iraq but also to political efforts by Russia and China to foil American diplomacy.

That sentiment explains why Nye’s latest book, Do Morals Matter?, has a more subdued tone than his previous works. He still believes that, “China will narrow the gap, but barring unforeseen surprises, the United States is likely to remain the largest country in overall power.” But now he emphasizes that, “hegemony and unipolarity after 1989 were always illusions.” Those illusions have been stripped and we have “less preponderance and a more complex world.”

For Nye, the Iraq War and other military misadventures weren’t the only culprits in weakening America. Instead, the emergence of Trump and xenophobic conservatism have done as much to damage the country’s powers sources as any foreign actors, he believes. Though a longtime Democrat, Nye is resolutely fair-minded and bipartisan throughout this book, praising actions taken by Republican presidents from Dwight D. Eisenhower to George W. Bush. Indeed, he gives the elder Bush and Eisenhower the highest marks of all postwar presidents—above all Democrats, including Harry Truman.

But Trump has finally shaken Nye’s resolute faith in American prospects. The president and the self-destructive xenophobia he embodies seem to Nye more responsible than anything else for reducing American prowess. This book concludes with the warning that, “the future success of American foreign policy may be threatened more by the rise of nativist politics that narrow our moral vision at home than by the rise and decline of other powers abroad.”

But, in fact, that narrow vision has already impeded the success of American foreign policy, as Nye implicitly concedes. The book outlines the case for the importance of considering morality in foreign affairs. The entire project of this book seems unusual in the age of Trump. Indeed, the title stands out when the president advertises his imperviousness to standards that previous leaders at least pretended the country were guided by.

Anachronistic, unintentionally sad urgings recur here. “Good moral reasoning,” Nye writes, “should be three-dimensional, weighing and balancing the intention, the means, and the consequences of presidents’ decisions.” The argument is thoughtful, deliberate, and compelling; it is utterly irrelevant to the United States government right now. Nye continues, “a moral foreign policy is not a matter of intentions versus consequences but must involve both as well the means that were used.” That reasonable maxim seems misplaced in the era where the U.S. president has tweeted,

To Iranian President Rouhani: NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE. WE ARE NO LONGER A COUNTRY THAT WILL STAND FOR YOUR DEMENTED WORDS OF VIOLENCE & DEATH. BE CAUTIOUS!

The contrast between Nye’s sober deliberations and the reality of contemporary U.S. foreign policymaking is jarring.

Nye quotes the editors of the Wall Street Journal lamenting that President Trump praised Saudi Arabia in absolving its leaders for murdering dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. “We are aware of no President, not even such ruthless pragmatists as Richard Nixon or Lyndon Johnson, who would have written a public statement like this without so much as a grace note about America’s abiding values and principles,” they wrote. Grace isn’t a Trump thing.

Elsewhere, Nye observes that “Trump’s speeches lacked the embrace of democracy and human rights that had been espoused by every president since Carter and Reagan.” This absence is consistent with Trump’s contempt for ethical behavior in family life (he cheated on all three of his wives), business, and politics. “When you’re a star, they let you do it,” Trump memorably shared with Billy Bush in the Access Hollywood tape. “You can do anything.” Anything. Trump doesn’t eschew morals in foreign policy because he believes in an amoral realpolitik; he believes in amoral realpolitik because he eschews morals.

As Nye points out, America’s promotion of human rights and humane values in rhetoric (consistently) and in practice (less often) was a source of its global power. The country’s standing has plummeted in opinion polls in most of the world, destroying the goodwill engendered by Barack Obama’s ascension to the presidency following the similarly unpopular George W. Bush. Approval ratings abroad are hardly the sole marker of a successful foreign policy, but they are not irrelevant either—soft power is indeed a form of power. It’s just one that the United States voluntarily relinquished in 2016.

OBSOLESCENCE ASIDE, Nye’s book is thought-provoking and innovative. There is surprisingly little scholarly research on the place of ethics in foreign policymaking. Nye quotes George F. Kennan’s famous warning in his book American Diplomacy about the perils of a “legalistic-moralistic” approach to international affairs. Nye correctly notes that declaring policymaking to be beyond ethical considerations is itself an ethical consideration, and not a particularly persuasive one.

But, in fact, realists disagree about the place of morality in foreign affairs. In the same book where he cautioned about America’s self-righteousness, Kennan wrote that, “it is a curious thing, but it is true, that the legalistic approach to world affairs, rooted as it unquestionably is in a desire to do away with war and violence, makes violence more enduring, more terrible, and more destructive to political stability than did the older motives of national interest.”

For Kennan, countries that pursue policies based on their respective national interests have more modest ambitions and are less prone to military crusades than countries swept up by popular passions. And indeed, thirty-five years after he wrote American Diplomacy, Kennan wrote an essay in Foreign Affairs clarifying that he hadn’t meant by his memorable formulation that “there is no room for the application of moral principle and that all must be left to the workings of expediency, national egoism and cynicism.”

Still, although the sentiment isn’t universal, some realists do indeed believe that nations should pursue their interests heedless of morality. Conversely, Nye seeks to establish a framework to evaluate presidential foreign policy on the basis of their ethics. Do Morals Matter? begins with a short history of morals in American foreign policy. For many in the United States, American “exceptionalism represents chauvinist pride and moral superiority, but for others it simply means patriotism based on shared civic ideals combined with cooperative internationalism,” he writes.

There is another, rarer perspective, to which Huntington (and others) subscribed. Another Harvard professor fond of three-word book titles that asked rhetorical questions, Huntington argued in his final book, Who Are We?, that America was distinct because of an “Anglo-Protestant culture” that generated the “American creed.” But Huntington wasn’t a chauvinist, and he was skeptical of America’s supposed moral superiority. Still, in describing the main currents in American political thought, Nye’s binary is perhaps appropriate enough.

As should be clear from his descriptions in his dichotomy, Nye believes in fortuitous exceptionalism. This, he believes, is the wellspring of Wilsonian liberalism. Unlike many other liberal internationalists, Nye has always acknowledged the limits of Wilsonianism—of the prospects of America remaking the world in its image. He favorably quotes Tufts University political scientist Tony Smith, who since the Iraq War has written several penetrating studies about the ease with which unchecked liberalism can morph into a form of imperialism.

However, as a good liberal, Nye still possesses a healthy respect for the Princeton president. “Where Wilson succeeded was not as a foreign policy leader, but as what we now call a ‘thought leader,’” he writes. Kennan, like other realists, had scorned Wilson’s utopianism, but he rethought that assessment in 1989—the magical year in Europe when six countries declared independence from the Soviet Union and seemed to embark upon paths to democracy. “I begin today in the light of just what has happened in the last few years to think that Wilson was way ahead of his time,” he admitted to New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Wilson’s ideas about self-determination and collective security were brilliant, appropriate to the twentieth century. But they were implemented disastrously and discredited in the minds of the disillusioned American public for a generation.

Nye holds the outdated view that America was “strongly isolationist” in the 1920s—a myth which scholars such as Warren I. Cohen and Akira Ariye have dispelled. Despite opting out of the League of Nations, America spearheaded various diplomatic initiatives throughout the decade, particularly around disarmament. Still, Nye is correct that it became clear to American leaders during the 1940s that the country needed to intervene in Europe and Asia to a greater degree than it ever had. He is also correct that “the American order after 1945 was neither global nor always very liberal,” contrary to the hymns delivered by people like David Brooks and Robert Kagan.

After this brief survey of American foreign-policy moralism, Nye devotes an important chapter to establishing the principles of a moral foreign policy. Evincing a sophisticated blend of realism and idealism, he advocates for his three-dimensional ethical framework. “Judgements based on good intentions alone are simply one-dimensional ethics,” he writes. Otherwise, Jimmy Carter would be considered the greatest foreign-policy president. Similarly, means and consequences are important but not the sole components of judging morality. Nye gives credence to Max Weber’s famous essay elucidating the need for policymakers to be more concerned with the outcomes of their decisions than with their moral purity.

Nye makes two persuasive arguments that separate him from realists. Firstly, he argues that realists take ethical shortcuts in arguing that existing in a dangerous world where survival is not guaranteed absolves states of their sins. “Survival comes first, but that is not the end of the list of values,” he writes. “Most of international politics is not about survival.” In addition, he suggests that American policymakers have duties to people beyond the country’s borders. He understands that cosmopolitanism does not override duties to put one’s nation first, but “one can be a strong inclusive nationalist and a moderate globalist at the same time.”

Do Morals Matter? designs an ethical scorecard with which to evaluate the morality of presidential policymaking. Under the category of “intentions,” he includes “moral vision” and “prudence,” the latter which asks the important question of whether a leader had the “contextual intelligence to wisely balance the values pursued and the risks imposed on others.” Under “means,” he includes the “use of force” and “liberal concerns,” such as respect for institutions and human rights. Under “consequences,” he includes “fiduciary,” “cosmopolitan,” and “educational,” the latter of which measures whether a leader respected the truth and built credibility.

In addition to its inventiveness, Nye’s schema is valuable for its comprehensiveness and sophistication. For instance, by including the importance of a leader taking actions in his nation’s interests (this is what he means by fiduciary), Nye develops a more realistic and complex way of thinking about ethical policymaking than simplistic evaluators who prioritize only national aggrandizement devoid of morality or, conversely, of humanitarianism devoid of prudence.

But this nine-point checklist weighs its criteria equally, and in doing so gives the mistaken impression that each consideration is as important as all others. So while George H.W. Bush famously lacked what he called “the vision thing,” that hardly seems like an ethical failing akin to, say, lying about the intelligence community’s certainty regarding Iraq developing weapons of mass destruction. Bush senior’s blurry vision inhibited imaginative diplomacy. The young Bush’s approach led to the deaths of thousands of Americans, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, and the squandering of American power and resources. But those two flaws are equally weighed in Nye’s scorecard.

THE BULK of Do Morals Matter? judges the leadership of American presidents, from FDR to Trump. After brief overviews of each leader’s consequential decisions, Nye grades them with his scorecard, leading to some surprising reviews. Franklin D. Roosevelt, the best foreign-policy leader America has had, loses points for repeatedly and unnecessarily lying to the public, interning Japanese-Americans, and doing little to save European Jews from destruction. Similarly, Harry Truman, another president seen by most historians as impressive on foreign policy, is chided for using nuclear weapons against Japan.

On the positive side, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton receive higher ethical grades than their accomplishments seem to warrant. Ford and Carter are praised for telling the truth to the American public and restoring faith in the country’s institutions. These are good indications of how ethical presidents are not necessarily the best presidents, something Nye concedes. Less ambitious presidents in Do Morals Matter? are rewarded for their restraint and modesty, while more ambitious leaders—even successful ones, like FDR and Truman—receive demerits for their inevitable mistakes. “It is important to remember the importance of nondecisions,” he writes about Obama.

The basement-dwelling presidents are given their due for whatever accomplishments they reached. Though one of Nye’s least ethical leaders, lbj receives some good words as, apart from Vietnam, he “was a good trustee of American interests in many aspects of foreign policy.”

And then there is Trump. Nye is generous, in my view, calling him “original” for his “innovative skills in political communication,” analogizing them to FDR ’s fireside chats on radio and John F. Kennedy’s open press conferences on television. The better analogy would be if FDR took to the radio to threaten foreign leaders, domestic critics, and ordinary citizens, and if JFK yelled into the television cameras most of the time. Nye says Trump is “clearly smart,” but what is actually clear is that the president’s smarts don’t extend to an interest (let alone expertise) in policy or even, say, in reading a book. Nye suggests that Trump’s policies have “continued the realist theme about the limits of multilateral institutions and global commerce.” But while all realists acknowledge these limits, few seek to unilaterally, spontaneously destroy these institutions at the cost of America’s reputation with its allies.

Even with his compliments, Nye gives Trump poor ratings, although I would have awarded even worse. America’s reputation, legitimacy, and soft power—leading advantages it retained over the Soviet Union and which it needs over China today—will not recover from Trump for at least a generation, if ever. The bloated military has gotten more bloated, relations with China have been wrecked, the stellar nuclear deal with Iran has been shredded, and the menace of climate change has been worsened.

The final third of Do Morals Matter? reflects on the brief history course Nye has delivered, discerning several lessons. “Imperial swagger and hubris did not pass the test, but provision of global public goods by the largest state had important moral consequences,” he writes. This is an important point, one that I think diminishes presidents like Ford and Carter. Building lasting international institutions, facilitating peace, or rebuilding countries, from the United Nations to Northern Ireland to a reunified Germany, has long-term benefits by legitimizing American power and improving lives simultaneously. Institutions have their expiration date, and the post-Cold War environment would look different had nato not expanded in Eastern Europe, or, better, had it retracted. But international order, such as it exists, is vital for America to prosper and remain secure, and institutions help make that happen. From Eisenhower’s use of the CIA to overthrow governments in Guatemala and Iran to Clinton’s bombing of Serbia without UN sanctions, the United States has not hesitated to violate international law when it wanted to accomplish certain objectives. Still, “prior to 2016, American presidents in most instances supported international institutions and sought their extension,” Nye observes.

Conversely, an obsession with credibility doomed some American leaders. One thing that mystifies political scientists is why great countries waste so much effort and power to defend or conquer small states on the periphery. Johnson, Nixon, and George W. Bush believed that an America which accepted small losses or displayed hesitations about using force would be fatally wounded. But “there is more respect to be won in the opinion of this world by a resolute and courageous liquidation of unsound positions than by the most stubborn pursuit of extravagant and unpromising objectives,” as Kennan told the U.S. Senate in 1966. America seems determined to learn this again in Afghanistan.

TOWARD THE end of the book, Nye reflects on the “challenges for a future moral foreign policy.” He notes that China will be the great challenge to America in the coming decades, but also observes that the United States is well-positioned in that competition, with hysteria being a greater danger to America. Similarly, non-governmental actors will play a larger role in world politics, with advances in technology leading to changes in everything from climate change to terrorism. Here, too, the United States could be injured not by foreigners but by the country’s own dysfunction, weakening international alliances and discouraging cooperation.

For all Nye’s reasonability, we are living in unreasonable times. Future leaders may try to emulate Trump’s unpredictability and scorn for basic decency. The president’s nearly universal adoration among Republican Party voters will encourage elected officials to try and replicate the sources of his uncanny political success. That could mean good things for the GOP. It means terrible things for anyone hoping for the United States to be a moral force in the world. Nye’s book asks, Do Morals Matter? They do. Just not now. Maybe in the future. Maybe not.

Jordan Michael Smith is the author of Humanity: How Jimmy Carter Lost An Election And Transformed The Post-Presidency and a former speechwriter for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Image: Reuters.

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